On The First Book of Swords

I read most of The First Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen. I’m not sure, but I think I was supposed to start with Empire of the East. But I didn’t feel like I missed any essential pieces of story. I stopped reading about 75% through because it was pretty clear there would be no ending, and I would have to read all of the other Sword books.

Saberhagen’s writing has a more literary feel to it. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what makes it seem so. Perhaps it’s the average sentence length and complexity, which seems higher than average. Perhaps it’s just the natural quality of an experienced writer I’m seeing.

Medieval fantasies set in the future are cool. I will freely admit that I’m fascinated by the idea of setting a medieval fantasy story in Earth’s future. I have a vague recollection that Terry Brooks put an old rusty skyscraper somewhere in the Sword of Shanara, which, when I first read it as a teenager, I thought was the coolest thing in the entire universe. Saberhagen’s world is also set in the future, with several blatant references to the Old World and their technologists.

Metric measurements shouldn’t be in a fantasy story. There are three mundane elements of worldbuilding which I struggle with in fantasy writing: Money (which I mentioned before), units of time and measurement, and swearing. I won’t go into the full details of why I struggle with them, but suffice it to say that I find it hard to come up with terminology that is foreign yet recognizable, and realistic yet fantastical. So I’m keenly interested to see what other fantasy authors do in these areas. Saberhagen does something I haven’t seen before: Metric units. Meters and kilometers and so forth. It makes sense in Saberhagen’s world, I suppose, if America died out and only the metric system survived. But for me, his system fails on the “fantastical” test, and so I can’t see myself emulating it.

Now moving on to Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, which I will have a lot more to say about. :)

Learning from Kinshield Legacy

So in my continuing quest to read more modern epic fantasies, I started The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May. I honestly don’t remember where or why I got it — it’s possible it was a free Kindle offer at some point. Actually it looks like it might be self-published since Peach Orchard Press isn’t exactly lighting up a Google search.

Here’s my question: How many pages should I give a book to grab my attention before I set it aside? I’ve read 69 Kindle pages, which is 19% of the book (it’s short). Thusfar it’s not grabbing my attention but maybe I’ll stick with it until the 25% mark. Okay that’s my new rule: From now on, I will give a book 100 pages or 25%, whichever comes first, to become awesome. At least, for authors I don’t already know.

So what works and what doesn’t work in Kinshield Legacy? The prose is clear and easy to read, which is a plus. I don’t much care for overly pretentious writing where I have to grab a dictionary every other paragraph. That’s not the kind of writing I want to produce.

What doesn’t work? Epic fantasy characters should not use the word “ain’t.” I gather it was supposed to convey that Gavin speaks like a commoner, but this particular word doesn’t work for me in the context of epic fantasy.

On the other hand, I liked the Farthan dialect shown in Chapter 6: “Oh, your head. You are injure.” “Bend down so I will reach you.” Conclusion: Changes to verb tense make a character sound like a foreigner, without going too far overboard.

In the first eight chapters of this book, a rather large number of characters are introduced, with I believe five different POVs (Gavin, Brodas, Daia, Brawna, and Risan). And these are fairly short chapters, so we actually don’t spend much time with each one of them. For me, it was hard to get a handle on them. Which leads me to this conclusion: It’s important to spend enough time with new characters as they are introduced so that the reader will recognize and remember them later.

On the subject of chapter length, I prefer somewhat shorter chapters, but I think these were a bit too short. At least for the amount of information that needed to be communicated. I strive for around 3000 words or so, which is kind of short, but Kinshield Legacy chapters felt closer to 1500 words. (I wish that was something the Kindle could show: Number of words in the book, and in each chapter.) (See update below.)

Now let’s talk about money. Every epic fantasy needs to have a system of coinage, and this is something I struggle with all the time. It’s hard to avoid going straight to the D&D brass/tin, copper, silver, electrum, gold, platinum model. You want some amount of realism, but I think coinage is one of the key things that distinguishes a fantasy world from the real world. Simply naming and describing a coin and the symbols on the front and back has the potential to provide a great deal of setting and history for a fantasy world. Kinshield uses the following coin denominations (so far): The pielar (copper), the kion (small silver), and the dyclen (large silver, equivalent to five kion). There was also something called a dycla, which I assumed was another word for the dyclen. Maybe the plural form. I puzzled these things out because it’s something I specifically look for, but I’m not sure a casual reader would have figured it out. So my takeaway point is this: Coinage should be dead simple, or clearly explained and reiterated often.

I generally write something simple like “copper coins” or “silver coins,” or even just “coins,” but I have never been happy with it. So I am definitely looking to steal somebody else’s ideas here. (John Brown used coins called “boxings” in Servant of a Dark God, and while I commend him for making up something new, it just doesn’t sound valuable to me. :) I can’t remember what Robert Jordan did offhand, but I recall it being fairly well done, with each kingdom having its own type of coins stamped with the face of the king or queen or whatnot, which is pretty realistic.)

At any rate, coinage in epic fantasy is a tricky subject. It’s one of those things that if you’re going to go into detail, you better get it right, otherwise you’re going to sound silly. (“Then he was paid 500 gold pieces for his flute… then he collapsed under the weight of it… then he was robbed because he couldn’t fit all those coins in his pants pocket… and oh yeah, medieval pants didn’t even have pockets, so he had to hold all 500 coins in his giant, five-feet-long hands… then he was depressed because of the outrageous inflation in the land, because if it costs 500 gold coins to buy a wooden flute, what must it cost to buy a horse?”)

UPDATE: I figured out that the first three chapters were 3038, 2094, and 1636 words respectively, for what it’s worth.

Learning from Servant of a Dark God

I finished Servant of a Dark God by John Brown the other day, and I thought it was a pretty good epic fantasy. It is the first in a series of books (as is the unspoken requirement for “epic fantasy”), but it was still very self-contained. Ie. the book had a satisfactory ending, and I didn’t feel like I was being coerced into rushing out to get the next book. (Don’t get me wrong, there were many questions left unanswered, but answering them would begin a new story.)

So in the spirit of “critical reading,” I’m going to list out what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t work. That is, things I might want to emulate, and things I might not. Thing number one is that the novel was self-contained. If I ever get around to writing a trilogy or whatnot, I’d like to do the same thing.

The “feel” of Brown’s writing seemed unusual for epic fantasy. I think mainly because the sentences were short and uncomplicated throughout. But it didn’t feel condescending, it actually felt right for the most part. Perhaps Brown was trying to emulate how young commoners might speak. I liked it, but I think for my own “epic” writing I want to retain a more “educated” tone (which is what I’ve been doing so far), unless maybe I’m specifically writing from the POV of a child or under-educated person.

The “structure” of the book remains elusive to me. Most stories are supposed to have a 3-act structure, or a 7-point plot, but I’m having a hard time applying those to Brown’s story. (It’s entirely possible that I’m terrible at that, though.) I’m not sure what the “inciting incident” was. I guess for Sugar it was her parents getting attacked. But what about Talen? His everyday world didn’t change until the latter half of the book, when River revealed all the magic stuff to him. As a matter of fact, halfway through the book I remember wondering who the main character even was (there were I think four main POVs, and they all seemed to be on parallel courses for quite some time). It was only near the end that I was sure that Talen was the main character and not Sugar. I think. (I still enjoyed the story, I just couldn’t fit it into a neat little box, which is probably a good thing.)

I thought switching to Hunger’s POV in certain places was brilliant. By doing so, Brown was able to really communicate how indestructible he/it was. From Hunger’s perspective, people attacking him were so ineffective that they barely warranted mentioning. He tossed them away without a thought. Describing the same scene from the attacker’s POV would have required tons and tons of superlative language about how strong the monster was, and I don’t think it would have conveyed its strength as well. So that’s definitely something to keep in mind. I also liked how the monster became more “humanized” and almost remorseful every time it ate someone’s soul.

On the less good side, I noticed a lot of explanations between spoken dialog. For example, a character would say, “We better get the magic widget,” and then there would be a paragraph of explanation about what the magic widget was. Then another character would reply, “That won’t do any good, we need the iron whatnot,” and then there would be another paragraph of explanation about the iron whatnot. When I notice it, I find it a little annoying and it distracts me from the story (because sometimes the explanation is so long you can’t remember what the character is replying to). Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin do this too. And I’m sure I will as well, but I definitely want to minimize those situations. If nothing else, I’ll try to keep the explanations really brief so that it doesn’t interrupt the conversation. Or save the explanations until after the conversation ends.

The chapter with the most emotional impact for me, hands down, was Chapter 34 “Sacrifice.” Saying goodbye to the wife and kids, Nettle volunteering his Fire, and Argoth struggling within himself over using the filtering rod. Great, soul-wrenching conflict-y stuff.

Anyway, all told, an enjoyable book and a fairly quick read. Good world design, good realism, very few tropes (ie. no ninja elves or grumpy dwarves). A good one I think if you like your epic fantasy in small, bite-sized chunks. I can definitely see myself reading more John Brown in the future.

Learning From Mistborn

I’ve been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast lately (which is excellent imo), and Brandon Sanderson often refers to his own works as examples of the points he’s making, so I thought I’d read some of his stuff. First up is Mistborn.

I’m reading this book “critically,” as opposed to reading for pleasure, so I’m making notes along the way about what I think works and what doesn’t. (I think a big part of learning to be an author is learning one’s writing preferences, which might sound silly, but one doesn’t always know what one likes writing when you start.) By the way, calling Mistborn an epic fantasy really stretches the definition of the genre, if you ask me. It feels more steampunky or urban fantasy-ish to me.

So here’s what I’ve learned for myself after reading six chapters. I don’t want to write a heist story. Why? Mainly because the complexity of plotting such a story intimidates me. I don’t do well working from the ending backwards (yet?) and it’s impossible for me to conceive of writing a heist from the beginning forward. It’s an extremely plot-driven kind of story, and I think thusfar I might be more adept at charcter-driven stories.

In chapter 5 we learn all about this thing called Allomancy, which is Sanderson’s magic system in this trilogy. He is known for inventive magic systems, and I have to say that it’s plenty inventive. What I’m learning for myself though is that I prefer magic that is more “mysterious.” What I mean is this: Sanderson explains Allomancy down to the most minute detail; how it works, the power behind it, how it can be used, the advantages, the disadvantages. It’s almost the level of detail you’d expect in hard science fiction (is there such a thing as “hard fantasy?”). There’s nothing really wrong with that, but to me it takes away a lot of wonderment and turns it into something mundane. When I think of magic in a fantasy story, I think of something that would make your jaw drop if you saw it. Something divine, mystical, and mysterious, used by a class of people who are set apart from ordinary men. But that’s just me.

Also in chapter 5 we see a pretty complex fight scene. What I learned here is that detailed fight scenes are hard to follow and not very interesting to read. Particularly when there are a lot of complex gymnastics interspersed with a complex magic system that we are just beginning to understand. You know how in the movies they sometimes slow down a fight to super slo-mo so you can see the super awesome move the guy just made? This fight in chapter 5 would have had like twenty of those super slo-mo shots. It just doesn’t work for me. My fight scenes seem to get less and less detailed the more I write. (Also, in real life, fight scenes don’t last very long, particularly with swords.)

One overall critique I have is this: When I’m reading fantasy, if I notice anything from the modern world that pulls me out of fantasy setting, it’s pretty jarring. So when I’m writing, I try to be conscious of terminology or speech patterns that sound “modern.” In Mistborn, I can see what happens if you don’t. Sanderson has a perfectly logical explanation for this: The person who translated the work from the fantasy world translated the colloqualisms into something we modern readers could relate to. Again, a perfectly logical explanation, which I’ve thought to use myself. But when I actually read the results, it still pulls me out of the world. For example, some dialog in Mistborn goes like this: “That was kind of the point” or “That was so not what I meant.” Not much, mind you. Just occasionally. But those two examples are enough to pull me out of the story and make me think of Seinfeld or Friends. Here’s another example. He used the word “caliginous” in a sentence. First of all, I had to look up what it meant heh. As you might guess just by looking at it, it stems from Caligula, that wacky old Roman Emperor, who should not have been known in the Mistborn world.

One argument I just now thought of against the “translating into modern language” theory is this: Most translations of things like Beowulf and Chaucer don’t do that. They leave the original colloquialisms intact, and I think I will continue to do so in my fantasy writing as well (as long as they make sense to a modern reader).

(By the way, I hate it when I begin a paragraph with a sentence like this: “One thing I’ve noticed is …” or “My feeling on that is …” Why do I keep doing that? Why don’t I go back and fix it?)

Chapter 6 of Mistborn deserves close study. I will freely admit that I am terrible at dialog, so there is a lot I can learn here. The chapter is nothing but a group of people sitting down and brainstorming how to pull off the heist. There are at least six or seven different characters speaking. I won’t say that I could have told them apart without dialog tags, but I did notice certain characters had distinct speaking patterns. For example, one of them said “my dear boy” a lot. Anyway, I found this to be an interesting chapter because I often find myself writing out a character’s problem-solving process (usually one at a time!), but I always want to go back and delete those scenes because the problem was that I had written my character into that corner, so the writing is my way of thinking up a solution to get him out of it. I guess it depends on the character and the situation.

Perdido Street Station

I just finished Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, which I read because it was supposed to be an example of the “fantasy steampunk” genre, although it turned out to be more in the “Lovecraftian horror” genre.

Mieville’s writing is incredibly detailed and imaginative, and he’s pretty creative with his vocabulary, too. In other words, I was using the Kindle’s dictionary feature quite a lot. It wasn’t quite pretentious, but it seemed a tad unnecessary at times.

My biggest (and only) complaint with the book is that I couldn’t connect with anything in it. I didn’t form any emotional bonds with the characters, and, in fact, actively disliked the whiny, inept protagonist Isaac. And the world of Bas-Lag is not pleasant. The fictional steampunkish city of New Crobuzon where this book takes place is an appalling toxic stew of industrial urban ickiness, with Lovecraftian-style monsters, magical creatures, Frankensteinian constructions, and bizarre aliens lurking everywhere. It’s not the sort of place I’d want to visit.

So I don’t think I’ll be reading any more in the Bas-Lag series. It’s a well-crafted book, and nothing like anything I’ve read before, but it just didn’t resonate with me.